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Culture

The Beauty of Italian-American Broken English – Language Analysis

Many non-native speakers are embarrassed and ashamed of their speech. Some feel uneducated and as though their utterances are only understood by few. However, I find beauty in broken English as it is accompanied by culture and experiences that have brought us here today.

If you have family that immigrated from Italy, you are likely aware that there are many differences in their speech. In order to better understand the differences between standard American-English and Italian-American “broken” English, I conducted an interview with my Noni’s close friend named Filomena Sabino.

Filomena Sabino immigrated from Italy to Chicago, Illinois at a young age. Although she has been living in the United States for decades, remnants of her native language are transparent in her English speech. Filomena was born in Naples, a metropolitan city in Southern Italy. This fact is relevant as there are numerous very distinct dialects in Italy. Filomena has a prominent Neapolitan accent when she speaks Italian and it is also perceivable in her English speech. When comparing a northern to a southern Italian’s speech, it sounds like two completely different languages. Discrimination between northern and southern Italians is still in existence. Northern Italians often consider southern  Italians to be part of low socioeconomic status, and to speak “improper” Italian. However, Italy has over 30 dialects from north to south which goes to show that change is inevitable as descriptivists believe.

To avoid code-switching, I had Fillomena speak about a process she was familiar with which is making a classic Neapolitan pizza. Throughout this language analysis, I was able to immensely expand my knowledge of Italian-American English. Coming from an Italian family with immigrant grandparents, I am so accustomed to hearing broken English. However, growing up, I have always been captivated and interested in accents and language variations. By closely examining her accent, I was able to find examples I never even knew were present. When comparing her broken English to the rules of the Italian language, it was evident why differences were present. When conducting the interview, I found a plethora of phonological, morphological, and syntactic differences in her speech compared to standard American-English as well as differences in stress.

Phonology and Morphology

Phonology is the study of speech sounds and how they are grouped. There were undoubtedly differences between the way Filomena pronounced sounds compared to how they are pronounced in standard English. While interviewing Filomena and considering the various elements of language, I found the most examples in phonology. The most salient phonetic difference was that Filomena did not produce the initial /h/ phoneme but added it in places where it does not belong. It can be confusing to Italians because some English words begin with the silent /h/ sound as in “hour”. From the moment our phone call began, this initial /h/ consonant deletion was transparent. She demonstrated initial /h/ consonant deletion for 23 out of 23 utterances. For example, “hello” became /ɛˈləʊ/, house became /aʊs/, and have became /æv/. I found this to be extremely interesting but understandable because, in the Italian language, the /h/ sound is silent and therefore omitted. This would not be considered a language deficit because no language variety is a disorder.

Not only did Filomena omit the /h/ sound where it is produced in English, but she also added it in places where it is not produced. This is known as a hypercorrection and is a part of morphology. Filomena produced /h/ in front of vowel sounds for 25/25 words. For example, the word in became /hɪn/ and eat became /hit/. When producing most words, Filomena added a short vowel phoneme known as the shwa. The word “cook” became /kʊk-ə/, take became /teɪk-ə/, use became /use -ə/, and raise became /reɪz-ə/.  Filomena added a schwa to 72/72 words that ended in a consonant. She explained that the entire process only takes about 30 /mɛnutz/ for minutes. Furthermore, Filomena failed to add “s” for plural words. For example, “three cups of flour” became “three cup of flour”.

I found various examples of vowel sounds that Filomena pronounced differently than I am used to hearing in standard American-English. When Italian speakers produce many English words, they are not diphthongized. For example, instead of saying “oil” as most English speakers do, she said /ɒl/. Filomena never produced the /ʊ/ sound as it the word cook, but changed it to the /u/ phoneme as in the word who. When she stated, “You mix it in” for example, the /I/ sound was changed to /i/. When I asked Filomena how long she has been living in America, she explained, “I leave here for 45 years.” She presented /I/ for /i/ in 56/56 utterances. Furthermore, when a nonnative speaker is thinking between words they generally say “um” or “uh” However, I noticed that Filomena said /I/.

In English, the /r/ sound is not produced with the tongue touching the top of the mouth but is retroflexed. Nevertheless, it is in Italian and is known as an alveolar tap or trill. It can be difficult for a speaker of standard American English to imitate this production of the /r/ sound. I noticed that Filomena produced the /r/ with an alveolar tap for 47/50 utterances. For example, the alveolar tap was used when producing the words everybody, roll, ricotta, read, stir, red, rinse, and raise. Moreover, in Italian, when a word has two of the same consonants next to each other, the consonant is drawn out longer. This is not the case in English, so I was able to identify a difference. For example, in English, the “nn” in dinner is not drawn out. When Filomena said this pizza makes for a great lunch or dinner, I noticed that the “zz” in pizza and the “nn” in dinner were drawn out substantially. Filomena demonstrated consonant lengthening for double letters for 15/15 utterances.

Syntax

Syntax is the study of the rules that govern the way words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences. Before Filomena began instructing me, she made small talk and asked, “How the school go?” She omitted the word “is” and the “-ing” in the word “going”. I found numerous syntactical differences when listening to Filomena’s utterances. For example, “Do not burn the garlic” became, “No burn the garlic”. “A little bit longer” became “Another little bit”. “I will put it in the bowl” became, “I put in bowl”. She said, “You put salt and pepper if you no wanna pepper you just-a puta salt.” When Filomena spoke about cooking the sauce she said, “Let it warm up this” instead of “Let it warm up like this”. I found it interesting that Filomena replaced the word “make” with “do”. For example, she said “do” any mistakes which is not generally heard in standard American English. Also, Filomena commonly forgot to incorporate the subject into her sentences. She left out the word “it” in 28/30 utterances. For example, she explained that “is good to learn to cook” instead of “It is good to learn to cook”.

I observed that Filomena had difficulties with the interrogative form. In English, to turn a statement into a question the verb must go before the subject pronoun. However, Filomena did not do so. Filomena asked me if I was ready by saying, “You are ready?” I am so accustomed to questions beginning with verbs that this syntax was a bit confusing. Although I understood that she was asking a question, this word order can be ambiguous especially if inflection was absent or if it was written without a question mark. Filomena also told me to “Do a photo of the pizza when I am done.” I am used to English speakers saying “take a photo” so I found this statement to be interesting. Filomena also mixed up the words “said” and “told” in 4/4 utterances. She was explaining how she previously spoke to my grandmother. She said, “I said her” instead of, “I told her”. Filomena also added the word “will” redundantly for 6/6 utterances. She explained, “When you will get done making the dough, you let it rise.”

Intonation and Syllabic Stress

Unlike English, I noticed that Filomena’s speech had a beautiful melody. Italian is considered a syllable-timed language whereas English is considered a stress-timed language. In English, the word today is pronounced with second syllable stress. However, when Filomena said it, the word had equal stress on both syllables.  Filomena expressed that you can add whatever toppings to the pizza that you want but the classic version has mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil. She said you can add meat like prosciutto if you like. When I hear the word “prosciutto” pronounced by a native English speaker, I commonly hear stress on the first syllable. However, when Filomena said the word, the word had equal stress across all syllables. As I was listening on the phone, Filomena said “okay” multiple times to ensure I was following along. I realized that Filomena also produced this word with equal stress on both syllables.

This language analysis encouraged me to learn the patterns of Italian “broken” English. This process has helped me understand that many of Filomena’s utterances were expected when considering the phonological, morphological, and syntactic features of the Italian language. It has also increased my sympathy for those who are often judged solely on their English proficiency.

5 comments

    1. As the child of Italian parents in Australia, I found this interesting. It is natural to confuse ‘make’ and ”do’ becuase in Italian, it is the same word. When I was studying Italian at universtiy, we used to talk about ‘italese’, which was a hybrid of ‘italiano’ and ‘inglese’. New words would be invented, which sounded italian but were just mispronouced English, but became common amongst Italian Australians.. An example of this is ‘fenza’ which derives from’ ‘fence’ but is not the Italian word for it. Another is ‘carro’ for car, instead of ‘machhina’ or ‘automobile’.

  1. This is a fantastic article and reminds me of my grandmother who immigrated from Italy at age 18. One common English pronunciation she did was to drop the vowel at the end of a word. I’m guessing she was thinking those weren’t pronounced in English since we have the silent ‘e’ on many words, and in Italian, they speak every vowel, with few exceptions. So ricotta became “rigGOT” mozzarella became “MOZZerelle” the town of Monaca became “monNACK.” She also had her own unique phrases as Filomena did: “you make-a you own decide.” “I’m-a gonna tell you a question.”
    I loved listening to the Broken English spoken by my immigrant relatives. Her lilting cadence was pure melody and music to my ears. I wanted to have my middle-school daughters to experience growing up listening to the Broken English cadence of an Italian-speaking person. So I hosted a wonderful Italian girl during her senior year of high school. She spoke very good English, and beautiful Broken English. One thing we still talk about is how she confused “chicken” and “kitchen”!!! It’s been 11 years since she lived with us and we are still great friends. She has been here 3x since 2010 and I have been to Italy 2x. I consider her my 3rd daughter, and ironically, people here thought she was my biological daughter. She looks more like me than my own daughters! The are blond, and my student and myself are dark brunettes!

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